ISSUE 9: March 2016

IMG_9133Raphael and His Daughter
By Thomas Sanfilip

I saw her walking toward the Ponte Vecchio again late in the afternoon. Not even her eyes could tell where, so warm and lustrous, but always cast down as if the earth speaking, and her father watching, always watching, though not directly, as if a master guiding a horse from behind that, with the tap of a switch or the flick of an eyebrow or some low whistle in his throat, could make her turn or pirouette. She only had to hear the wind to move closer or more distant from everything around. He could direct her ever so subtly in a new direction like some magician probing a dark secret.

This passionless movement of the earth below her feet and the father’s power to move it and to watch his daughter move with it over the Arno, back and forth, was like some frothy wave of light. Her long brown hair twisted over her shoulder made me wonder. She looked like some melancholic angel fallen to earth, though no words passed between us, only this languid, distant walk, a product of her father’s training, his mind, his thoughts. Here he was with daughter pausing to his reckoning, her face consuming my heart like some wild inextinguishable flame night and day on the streets of Florence.

I watched them so many times and always in the shadows, Raphael and his daughter, maybe after too many inquiries, too many steps behind them, four steps forward, almost able to touch her hand, sometimes near enough to see her soft neck and absorb her transparent soul. She was so tightly bound to him, yet each time I saw her pass, even when drums sounded at night and the young swallowed their flames for a few tourist dollars, I wanted to wrest her away. But the father was there and the Holy Ghost and the Virgin Mary, one or the other, the father on one scale, she on the other.

One afternoon I saw them sitting in one of the cafés in the Piazza Della Repubblica, breezily quiet and subdued, he slowly drinking a cup of cappuccino, she listening to him speak. From a distance it looked as though his lips never moved, stapled and pressed, every word, silent or spoken. Like some oracular voice directing her one way then another, pointing out with his eyes, but drinking in her attention at the same time as though calibrating the gas flame on a stove as one cooks a delicate piece of fish. Not too much on one side, ever so gently turned to the other.

I took a table nearby and ordered something inconsequential. The more his lips moved the less I made out words, the more he talked the more evident her nodding assent, as though conceding to a lover’s private request. A little spray of late afternoon sunlight bounced off the building facades that flanked the piazza. The gratification of her alone in the sun or under an evening moon was enough to satisfy my passion.

But then something stopped, as if planned, some awakening, some dull light imploding as if no one cared that her soul might extinguish, even her father who sat calmly vigilant at her side. I tried to catch her gaze, its madonna-like innocence overshadowing everything in its path, even the late afternoon sun slipping among the shadows. How could I not see her emptiness and innocence, a beauty neither living nor dead, but caught somewhere between, trapped in that mercurial space between waking and sleeping? I felt bound and ridiculed, everything inside me yearning to inundate her being, but it was not remotely possible. Her father was content to parade his daughter to the world. His was the way of the connoisseur who understands the preciousness of creation, she moving gracefully by his side transfixed by the unknown, the vague scent of flowers following in her wake.


IMG_8984Garden of the Fugitives
By Marcus LiBrizzi

Happiness separates the family like a spotlight on a subject. In the forum, the baths, the Villa of Mysteries, the family poses for pictures without a stranger appearing even once in the background. Oblivious to anyone else but themselves, they walk the ancient streets of Pompeii while stray dogs watch them from gutted doorways. Small and still, with mournful eyes, the dogs are everywhere, but not one shows up in any photograph taken by Fabian, his partner Rafa, or the three teenage siblings, Marius, Sol and Adriana.

Sometimes the April rain stops, and then the mist rises up into the ash-colored sky. During one of these ascensions, Mount Vesuvius suddenly appears stark in the background. Wispy clouds near the mouth of the crater make it look like the volcano is going to erupt. Another time, while the family stands alone in the Temple of Isis, noisy Italian schoolchildren pass by the street outside and sound like they’re speaking a dead language.

… eramus … alterum … amicis …

In glass cases, the plaster cast of a young man covers up his face, and the cast of a dog writhes on a chain. Long after the bodies had decomposed, victims of Pompeii left hollow cavities in the volcanic ash that buried them alive. Plaster poured into these hollows recovered the forms of people, animals and plants. Fabian remembers once seeing a picture of a whole family formed out of plaster. They were all lying down, dead or unconscious, except one man at the back was leaning up on one elbow to take a final look at his loved ones. Although these plaster casts are not in the glass cases, a large poster reveals their location. They’re exhibited in the place where they were discovered, an orchard behind a house on Via della Palestra.

After finding the street and walking the length of it, Fabian and the others never find the plaster casts, so they wander off to explore other things. Hours later, an announcement rings out from hidden speakers telling visitors it’s time to leave. Although an exit is nearby, the family goes in the opposite direction. They still have thirty minutes before the gate closes.

Once again, everyone heads down Via della Palestra. Premature dusk has settled over the ruins, and only the sound of their footsteps disturbs the intense quiet. No one else is around. Even the dogs are gone. The family comes to an intersection, Via della Nave Europa, which runs down a steep hill. At the bottom, there is a group of little stone houses with impressive doorways. This must be the necropolis. As everyone starts to walk down the hill, something else catches their attention.

It’s a garden, it has no entrance, but the walls are low enough to scale. The garden consists of a simple plot of grass with several rows of apple trees and five plaster casts lying on the ground, a woman and four men, the last one leaning up on one elbow to take a final look at his loved ones. As they walk around the plaster casts they tried to find earlier, Fabian and the others wonder aloud how they ever found the exhibition, hidden here in such an out-of-the-way place.

When their exclamations die down, a somber mood overtakes them all. The plaster casts tell a desperate story. The last moments of the Roman family unfold right now into a timeless present. Stark white in the premature dusk, the casts have become luminous while the rest of the world has gone curiously flat.

*

They all make it to the gate just as the attendant is locking up for the night.

“Che fortuna,” he says, winking at them.

Out they go, swept up into the world of the living, a taxicab to the station, a sleeper on the Eurorail, then the culmination of their vacation in Calabria and Sicily. A Boeing 747 flies them back to North America, where a year blows by like a whirlwind of changing scenes and seasons. Throughout it all, their journey to Italy stands out like a landmark.

On the anniversary of the trip, Fabian and Rafa plan a special dinner and invite Marius, Sol and Adriana. During the day, Fabian’s mind keeps returning to the strange experience they shared in Pompeii. He and the others often talked about the unbelievable odds of finding the plaster casts concealed in a place with no entrance. In the midst of the dinner preparations, Fabian looks up the casts on his iPhone. After a few searches, he learns that the statues are displayed in the Garden of the Fugitives. While he recognizes the location from the photographs on his screen, Fabian is surprised by the differences.

To begin with, the plaster casts are completely covered in glass to protect them from weather and vandals. They are not just lying on the ground in the open. Another difference involves the number. Thirteen plaster casts are on display, not five like there were last year. In fact, the casts consist of three families, not one, like there was last year. Before Fabian can investigate further, his children arrive, and the celebration begins. Only later that evening, Fabian remembers what he discovered, and he shares it with everyone else seated around the table. Until he starts talking, Fabian didn’t realize he was upset.

A strange mood falls over the table, an atmosphere so like the one last April when the plaster casts told their desperate story. Since the candles have melted down, dusk fills the dining room, so the walls seem to recede while flickering light makes shadows intertwine like branches of apple trees overhead. In a ghostly image hovering just below the surface of the present, the Garden of the Fugitives softly pulses in and out of perception.

Leaning one elbow on the table, Fabian stares ahead at his family and finds he cannot voice what he finally guessed. They will live forever.


IMG_6137The Silver Smile of the Hatchet
By Charles Rafferty

Magda was too tiny to kill a cow but her mother needed help with the weed-like tenacity of her daily chores. The chickens were put on Magda’s list. The worst one could do, her mother concluded, was to run headless around its pen.

Magda surprised her mother. With a succession of little kisses, she would persuade the chicken to her side. She let it peck the seed from her palm as it had done on a daily basis since the first time it left the henhouse. Then she scooped it up and took it behind the barn.

The bird never complained as she laid its head upon the stump. It may have smelled the dried blood or the feathery scent of a missing companion, but Magda reasoned the recognition was comforting, as if some grand reunion were in the offing. Then the silver smile of the hatchet thunked into the wood, and the body of the bird began to flap and sprint.

Magda was always careful of the head lying in the dirt, staring up at her with the last twinklings of consciousness. Sometimes it even winked at her, and Magda spoke to it as if she would make it better with a little extra feed, a little rub behind the ears.

One day, Magda’s mother interrupted the cycle of murder and comfort. “Magda!” she called. “Stop talking to that chicken.” Magda tucked a hair behind her ear, laid the head upon the ground, and stood to face her mother. “Your uncle is coming for dinner. Go get another bird.”

Magda had blood on her hands, an arterial spatter across her coveralls. She wanted to clean up before returning to the chicken yard, but her mother would never stand for that. “They’re just animals,” she would say, as if that put them into the same category as coffee cups or grass.

So Magda came out from behind the barn and picked another Black Star that had stopped laying eggs. It didn’t look much different from the others, but its insides had grown old. The chicken came over when Magda made kisses in the air. It climbed willingly into her arms as if it were accepting a hug.

But then the bird became agitated. Perhaps it could smell the fresh blood, or the hunger of her uncle approaching on horseback. Twice it tried to crawl up the front of Magda’s shirt, its claws cutting into her. There was a lot of flapping and squawking, and when Magda got finally back behind the barn, she kicked at the gate but it didn’t catch.

As always, the hatchet came down, and the body of the bird began to run. Somehow, it found its way between her legs and out of the un-shut gate. Magda hurried after it, but the remaining chickens saw its headless arrival, her bloody pursuit. The Black Star fell over into the dirt like a toy that needed rewinding.

Magda bent down to retrieve the lump of feathers and felt the blood trickling over her breast where the bird had clawed her. “Trying to walk to heaven” is what her mother would have said. Magda stood up. She felt conclusions being drawn. The silence of the chicken yard blossomed before her like a strange new orchard whose only fruit was fear.


IMG_8213Closeup
By Peter Jordan

On the walls of every room were photographs: some color, some black and white. Mostly the photographs were of the neighborhood; the inside of run-down diners, the front of dollar stores, dudes on the bottom steps of brownstones drinking from big bottles in brown paper bags.

Only one of the photographs was framed, it was Toot’s all-time favorite. It was a closeup of a woman sitting on the front steps of one of the buildings. She could have been anywhere between the ages of seventeen and seventy. She wore a faded black bandana pulled tight over her scalp and she was smiling but, when she smiled, she didn’t show her teeth.

Toot said she was a crack whore and she had just had a hit. The pupils of her eyes were blown, making them look black. There was a parched look to her skin, a mummified look. The shot was in black and white. He said it was a difficult low-light shot.

I stayed with him for two weeks at the end of that summer. Two weeks was enough. On one of those hot afternoons I heard two shots. They were loud and I knew they were close. I looked out of the big upstairs window. Across the street at the Superfresh, shoppers spilled out of the front of the store screaming and panicked, running short distances crouched low, looking for cover.

I hurried down the stairs, taking them three at a time, and out of the front door. Across the street, a black kid was lying on his back on the sidewalk. A woman was down on both knees bent over him, asking where he lived, where his momma was. I couldn’t hear his answer. She was telling him he was going to be okay. I’d say he was somewhere between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, although he was at least as tall as me.

He was on his back, one leg drawn up, and he was pressing down hard on the sole of his brand new white sneakers, like he was trying to push himself up the street.

There were two trails of blood and because the street was on a slope the blood met below his white sneakers to form a pool. He rolled onto his side, away from the woman. Then he gasped for air, like he had just surfaced from being underwater.

Some people came over to investigate, bent over, curious. The door of the Superfresh swished open as the people set off the sensors. Each time the doors opened I could smell roasted chicken and herbs, but it didn’t make me hungry.

When I looked inside the Superfresh there was a security guard sitting on one of those wheeled checkout chairs, at first I thought he was a cop. He had his hat in one hand, and he had a soda can tipped back to his mouth, his head tilted back drinking the soda. When the security guard put the soda down he looked at me, but it was like he didn’t see me.

The first to arrive was Channel-10-News. It was a little cream-colored transit van with a satellite dish on the top and Channel-10-News on the side. A guy in a cream suit got out, followed by a cameraman. The cameraman hoisted the camera onto his shoulder. And the man in the cream suit combed his hair.

I heard the ambulance before it arrived. When it pulled up onto the sidewalk two paramedics got out, raised their hands toward the sky and pulled on their tight blue plastic gloves. They examined the boy. Then one of them opened the back door of the ambulance, took out a green polythene sheet, unrolled it fully, and they both rolled him onto it.

The cops were the last to arrive. When they did, they got out of their patrol car with a tired but cautious look about them, in that slow way they do. Two big men, hats pushed back.

One cop was looking for witnesses. He went from person to person, wiping his face with a white handkerchief. The other cop walked into the Superfresh. He talked to the security guard and staff. Those cops had seen it all before.

Some neighborhood dudes sauntered over holding up the palms of their hands to stop the traffic as they crossed the road. They wanted to know what had happened. There was a feeling now that things were over, but there was also a feeling that something else was about to begin.

I walked back to the apartment and closed the door behind me. In the coolness of the dim corridor I stood with my forehead pressed against the wall.

When Toot got home from work I told him what had happened. He turned on the television and searched the channels until he found Channel-10-News. The guy in the cream suit was saying two young black kids had tried to rob the Superfresh. One of the boys had a tazer. But he was too slow.

Toot kept pointing at the television and shouting, “That’s just next door. That’s the fuckin’ Superfresh!”

When the news-piece was over Toot got up and turned off the television. Then he lay down full-stretch on the sofa, one leg drawn up, and he said, “Man, if only I’d seen that. That would have been some photograph.”

I checked my watch. It was still early. In an hour or so I would take a shower, get ready to go out.


IMG_1321Sailor’s Lament
By Shannon Magee

She was the mascot of the regattas. Every year she seemed to … she seemed to dance in the boatyard as the sailors rigged their boats. She inhabited space like energy, like light. I remember catching a glimpse of her before a race in July. Boats of all sizes were anywhere they could stand around the tiny clubhouse, small optimists, narrow Sunfish, and long 420s parked on dollies to be rigged and put into the water. Sails seemed to be flapping everywhere, tugging booms along as they swung freely from their masts. The sun was bright and the asphalt of the parking lot, where most of the boats were loitering, was baking. Thick white sails billowed in the wind like heavy canvas bed sheets and I saw her surrounded by them, sitting on the bow of her racing boat, legs wrapped around the mast as she fit the mainsail into the boom. She was smiling, but there was a weight behind her eyes like the heaviness you feel on a dark night in the middle of winter.

That was the summer of the endless heat waves. They rolled in like the waves, one after another for months, punctured only by brief—but intense—thunderstorms. The clouds would roll up on themselves and darken from a steamy white cotton thread to a thick grey bundle of wool. The sky would darken gradually, a film fading to noir while the rain gurgled from several miles above the bay. When such a sudden thunderstorm rolled in, she was faster than anyone at de-rigging and getting the boats covered up so we could all get inside and wait out the rain. She would sing or laugh the whole time, the wind stealing the sound from her throat before any of us had the chance to hear it.

She was from our town, but she was a stranger to us. I never even knew her name. I think that concerned a lot of people more than anything else—that she wasn’t close to anyone in town. That only became a problem later on in the summer. It meant more than some people first realized.

On the last day, the last race of the summer, the sun was glaring at us, bright and blinding. Children chased each other through the labyrinth of fiberglass and metal. The sky was a deep blue, the sort with layers you could just fall into endlessly, and the sea—the races were on the bay and the sunlight edged the deep green of the channel like gold lace. In the morning, there wasn’t a ripple on the ocean.

She was floating on the asphalt, twirling from one side of her boat to the other, hooking up the mainsheet on starboard, then tightening the jib halyard on port. No one thought the races would be any good, because the wind was so dead, but she seemed hopeful just the same. When she and her partner pulled up their main sail after they got their boat in the water, the wind picked up enough to carry her laugh to those of us on land.

But … it surprised us all. The storm. The sky just turned, like a coin flipped. We were already out on the water and there wasn’t any lightning. They don’t cancel races unless there’s lightning so, we stayed out on the water. Her boat cut through the water like a sword, splashing everyone with its wake as she and her partner cheered the rest of us on.

No one expected them to capsize like they did. It was just before the first flash of lightning. And I remember seeing her through the grey, sitting on top of the dagger board, sitting on her boat gone sideways, struggling to level the boat and raise the soaked sail out of the water. She was too small for that strength. She couldn’t have done much, but it wasn’t her fault. Her partner just got stuck … under the sail, you know? No air in that suctioned space between the sail and the water. By the time they got the boat up … just gone.

Of course, we all went in as soon as we could, called the paramedics even though everyone knew it was hopeless. Some people even blamed her for what happened; I heard the talk as the ambulance left the lot. I saw her then, lying on the dock. She was curled up, her body rising and falling as the dock bobbed on the current. Someone called to her, but I don’t think she heard and no one went near her. No one knew what to do. Her eyes were wide open, but they … they were staring at nothing.

She stayed there all afternoon. Through the storm and everything. No one tried to move her. No one knew how to talk to her. But as the sun set, I saw someone leave a storm candle next to her. The light flickered across her face as the sky went dark. It showed how empty her eyes were. I think it stayed lit all night. The next day, she had disappeared. All traces of the day before had vanished. I never saw her again.


IMG_8422The Butterfly’s Secret
By Erin Clements

The huge armoire in Anna Blue’s house changed locations over the years, but when she was eight years old it resided in her living room. Its height reached the ceiling at eight feet tall and it spanned four feet across. Beautifully handcrafted in Europe, the doors had carvings of roses and lilies. This high-quality craftsmanship meant that if her crayons touched any part of it, she would not live to see her ninth birthday.

As an entertainment center—overfilled with TV, VCR, speakers, amplifiers, equalizers, miles of wire, and so much more—the entire armoire leaned forward menacingly. It was obvious the looming cabinet was over its weight capacity limit and the wood would creak whenever Anna or her sister Melissa put a tape in the VCR. Normally, children would express this concern to an adult. However, their father, an engineering-school dropout, was sensitive about his ability to build and stack. Reminding him of his inadequacy to properly set up an entertainment center (or improve anything around the house) was forbidden—as it would tear at his already weakened self-esteem. Thus, the young girls watched cartoons cautiously, engrossed in coyote-desert-fowl relations, but with an ear always listening for the sound of wood under duress.

And then it happened.

Anna was sitting on the couch, a lucky bystander. Melissa had been sitting right in front of the tower of doom. Anna saw the armoire falling forward gently, like a sequoia coming down after generations of serving nature. She screamed for Melissa, breaking her away from the intoxicating cartoons. Melissa saw the carved masterpiece headed right for her. To their advantage, it was so big it fell like a massive dinosaur, gradually, as if gravity got lazy. Melissa scrambled backwards, scuttling like a crab. The noise as it hit the hardwood floor was deafening and intense, especially for young children. They immediately cried. Even though they weren’t hurt, they needed serious parental comfort. It took several scoops of ice cream before they could calm themselves.

After the incident, the armoire was moved. The family treated the catastrophe as if it were an accident and had nothing to do with the fact that their father burdened a beautiful but flimsy piece of furniture with about fifty extra pounds of electronics. It was repurposed as a liquor cabinet for which two children had no use. Even though the new entertainment center was sturdy and the armoire stood solidly in another room, the incident still traumatized Anna. She lost her sense of safety that day … and while most normal people are afraid of spiders or clowns, Anna had the constant fear of falling furniture. Any piece of furniture that stood taller than her five-and-a-half feet gave her the feeling that it would come crashing down.

This fear followed her to college, where it surprisingly worked out to her advantage. Her constant fear of tumbling furnishings pushed her toward the center of every room, away from minatory deathtraps that seemed to sway in her presence. Always being in the center of the room unconsciously made her the center of attention, even in large groups. Her fear of falling furniture made her afraid to be a wallflower. She avoided corners and hallways, trying to prevent herself from being crushed under a mountain of wood and knick-knacks.

While Anna didn’t mind how many friends she made, always being in the center of the room made her naturally receive attention. She was the one introducing people and chatting up whomever was nearby. People complimented her on being attentive to guests and friendly to everyone. Little did they know she was using them as human shields from towering bookcases and bureaus, tottering cupboards and cabinets.

Anna gave people the impression that she liked to be around them and was interested in what they said. She flitted and fluttered for a deeper reason. Even while she danced around other party guests trying to stay alive, Anna was always the social butterfly.


IMG_9022Wood People
By Howard Sage

Blanca said that we could stop by and meet her friend’s friends at the raw wood shop and still have time to catch the 11:48 train for the beach.

She had told me about those free and pure guys who wanted nothing more than to saw, hammer, plane and nail unfinished oak, maple, and sometimes pine. If Marina, the year-long-girlfriend of one of those worker-owners, John, stood for anything, then these wood people were as transparent and true as any surface on the earth.

We took Greenwich Avenue and cut quickly through from Sixth Avenue along Thirteenth Street, at the edge of the meatpacking district. The shop, alone on a corner, was close enough to the Eighth Avenue subway, Blanca had calculated, so we could spend up to 30 minutes chatting, run across the street to the station, and make it to the Long Island railroad in time to catch the train. I admired the way she took charge and elegantly arranged all the details so I could just follow her.

With all her craft and forethought she hadn’t figured on or even known or remembered the long ticket lines, so she told me to buy the tickets and she would wait on the platform and convince the conductor to hold the train doors open for me until I came. Blanca believes she can make anything that she wants to happen happen: convince people to believe incredible stories of her adventures, move strangers to help her with money and goods, have people hold doors open that should close.

She went down to the track, and I found my place at the back of one of the lines.

The ticket seller was fast, and the line moved quickly. My nervousness about missing the train slowly abated, and I began to think about how much I liked Blanca. Her white skin had a few perfectly placed dark spots, and when she walked toward me with her stately gait, she seemed just the right amount taller than her five-foot-three or five-foot-six. Yes, she was 40, but I remember her face with no lines and her mouth with no creases. She loved to run and exercise, even though she smoked, and her arms and legs were strong and solid.

After four or five minutes I was at the front of the line and bought the tickets. I hurried to the gate and skipped down to the track. I could see Blanca just inside the train car door. No one was on the platform, and I had a sense that something permanent and even final I could not stop was about to happen.

Blanca saw me on the steps and then down the platform.

The doors slowly began to close, but her arms didn’t move and her face showed no reaction. Something between a frown and a grin took shape on her face.

Her stolid form remained firmly and proudly motionless at the doors as they closed and the train began its starting jerks.


IMG_9664Heartbeat
By Joshua Isard

18th Street seems narrower than usual. I’m juking between other cars for the whole two-mile ride, and when I arrive I check to see that both my rearview mirrors are still where they should be.

“I’m bleeding,” my wife had said when she called. I was about to walk into a bar, but instead dashed back to my CRV, peeled out of my spot on the street, and committed violations of even Philadelphia driving culture on my way to her office.

I call from the street. “I’m here.”

“It’s fine.”

“What?”

“The doctor said not to worry, that this sort of thing happens, and that we should just come to the office in the morning.”

“Really?”

“Go back to the bar.”

The next morning, after a night where we both read full novels for not being able to sleep, we go to the ob/gyn office and get in right away. The nurse first takes my wife’s height and weight. Then she asks my wife to lie down, unbutton her jeans, and pull up her shirt so she can use the transducer wand to measure the baby’s heartbeat. She squirts out the gel and then rubs the wand just above the waistline.

There is a whooshing, like the wind through a cracked window just before a storm.

“Is that it?” I ask.

“No,” the nurse says. “You can come over here and hold her hand.”

I go to my wife and stand next to her while she lies on the exam table and we hear the sounds that her insides make through small sonar.

She starts to cry.

“What, hon?”

“They found it right away at my last appointment,” my wife says, “they found it in five seconds.”

“Nothing to worry about,” the nurse says. “The baby may just be turned away.” Then she seems to push harder on the wand, and I wonder if she half wants to poke the baby so it turns around and stops this lady from crying on the exam table.

The same whooshing, the same wind.

And then it hits me that the baby may be dead, and what if it is? Is there anything I can sympathize with my wife over less than a dead baby inside her? I’m sure they would have to remove it, probably today.

Whooshing.

It’s my baby, but right now it’s way more hers. The only sign I have of it is increased anxiety. What do you say to your wife who’s just had her dead fetus cut out of her?

She’s crying, breathing hard, trying to keep it in but not doing a very good job.

And I start getting emotional. I can’t tell if it’s for my wife or my child, but this—this is tragic.

Then the whooshing speeds up, and gets so it’s like a fan blowing right in my ear.

“149,” the nurse says.

“What?” I say. My wife can’t really speak right now.

“Beats per minute. The baby’s fine, and the doctor will be with you in a few minutes.” She cleans off the wand and my wife’s belly and leaves us.

“Goddamn baby,” my wife says. The tears are now a glaze on her cheeks. “Turned around at the worst time.”

“It’s almost like it was showing us its ass on purpose.”

“That little fucker.”

My hands are shaking a little from adrenaline. I don’t know if I got the rush when I thought the baby was dead or when I found out it was alive, but I have it now. My eyelid twitches a little. I can feel my pulse in my wrists, on my temples.

And the heartbeat I heard, it’s still with me, the soundtrack over all my sensations.

I think for a second: Well played, baby. Well played.


IMG_8835Expectancy
By Katrina Johnston

Sitting at the desk was a very pregnant woman who said something urgently to me that I couldn’t understand because of her accent. I ground my left heel into the carpeting. I don’t like doctors. They’re always poking something cold where the sun don’t shine and then they snip and stitch.

I hesitated, swallowed hard. I looked around me and behind me and counted seven pregnant women occupying the waiting room chairs. I’d been to see Dr. Forzani a few times previously. He’s my GP. Wow, he was sure dealing with a lot of obstetric patients on this particular Wednesday afternoon and I was his only male patient today, or so it appeared.

We must be having some kind of major population explosion. Those gigantic and far-along bellies took priority. There wasn’t a spare chair to be had.

They were young and not-so-young women; blond and dark-haired women, and women of various nationality, each steadfastly leafing through the outdated magazines, sitting like lumps of expectancy, bellies like pillows. I felt like the odd man who had wandered into a no man’s land.

I started sweating, turned back to the desk, but the receptionist had just grabbed the phone. I waited while she held a conversation in a language I couldn’t fathom.

One by one, as if by ritual, each pregnant woman put down her magazine and glanced over at me, shrewdly appraising while I idled by the desk. They scrutinized me with their steely, staring eyes, quite serious and calm and judgemental, causing me tremendous discomfort.

I felt like they were knowledgeable of all my misspent behaviours. “Boys will be boys. See, look here,”—they were accusing me. “What a mess your gender has wrought upon us. We are hard-working and well-meaning and long suffering women. This is your fault!” One by one, their silence was addressing me: “You did this. You Man! You thoughtless, self-centred man!”

I briefly studied the ceiling tiles, the artwork on the walls. I had counted seven, but actually there were eight pregnancies. I’d just now noticed another woman on the far side of the room. Together, they seemed to circle their wagons around me using their laser-sharp eyesight. I stood like a pariah.

Wait a minute! Another woman is coming in. Yeah, pregnant. She walks like a duck, tilting side-to-side, both hands supporting her lower back, presenting her belly forward. She appears to be as young as 20, expecting twins perhaps, due yesterday. Her stomach is enormous. I can see she’s weary. That makes nine pregnancies in here! No, ten! I’ve forgotten to include the woman behind the counter and now she’s hanging up the phone.

So while they’re all staring at me and thinking and wondering which belly I belong to, or which belly that I am responsible for, or wondering why I’m seeing Dr. Forzani and what’s my story, I lean over and try to explain: “I’m here to see the doctor at 3:15. My name is Mark.” I say this extra quietly.

“Ya,” she says. “Forzani, yeah, he move to 312. Dis is 304 and another doctor working. You want down far hall.”

Relief poured over me like warm biscuit gravy.

When I’d registered at Dr. Forzani’s new office, I was overjoyed that there were no pregnant women in his waiting room. I started to sweat profusely as my appointment time drew near—an assessment for vasectomy, later the same day. My wife arranged it.


IMG_8164It’s Not about Breastfeeding
By Ashley Kunsa

I’d stopped loving my husband, and so I did the only thing I could think of. I got pregnant.

My sister, who’d long ranked the marriage among my worst ideas, put this at the top. “A baby’s not going to keep you two together.”

“Of course not,” I told her. “It’s over. Why else would I want a child after fifteen years?” She did her jaw-jutting, lip-biting thing and shook her head.

My husband went into go-mode almost overnight. He slapped Mr. Yuk stickers on every bottle in the house, childproofed the cabinets, pitched matches and lighters. Usually, he half-read The Economist at the dining room table while Comedy Central yammered in the background. When he suggested a CPR class, I glanced up from my laptop, where I was combing two-bedroom apartment ads on Craigslist, and shrugged. “Go wild.”

The day of my 20-week ultrasound, a mountain of Amazon boxes awaited us in a pile of snow on the front stoop. I laced up my boots while he dragged in a Jenny Lind crib and matching changing table, a Baby Einstein jumper, a stroller/pack-n-play/car-seat combo in a gender-neutral plaid. He hadn’t taken such an interest in anything in years. But when he started talking about the three different breast pumps he’d ordered—speed, suction, flanges—I knew it was time.

“Look,” I said. “We need to talk.”

“I understand this feels very personal to you. I get that. They’re your boobs.”

“No,” I said.

“But I feel like this should be a family decision. I really hope it can be.” He was hugging the Medela box.

“Look, it’s like—”

“Breast milk is so important, for so many reasons.”

I covered my face with my hands.

“Please don’t cry,” he said. He touched my cheek. “Let’s talk this through.”

“Stop,” I said. “Just stop. This isn’t about breastfeeding. God, it’s not about breastfeeding at all.”

He sighed in relief, his almost-forty-year-old features falling into their familiar seats. Then he looked at me, expectantly, cradling the breast pump in his arms.

“I’m sorry. I don’t know how to say this other than—I’m moving out. I found a place.”

He clutched the box to his chest. “You what? You, wait. I don’t. What?”

“Things between us,” I said. “We just—stopped. You had to know. It’s been like this a long time now.”

Over slick roads, we drove in silence to the hospital. A small woman wearing a hijab rubbed cold gel on my balloon belly. I waited for her to list out the chambers of the heart, the kidneys, bladder, brain, spine. Instead, she whispered something in a language I didn’t understand and excused herself from the room. When she returned, it was with a doctor. He took up the wand.

“What is it?” my husband said, and I felt panic rise in the room like the rivers after the snow melts.

“The heartbeat,” said the doctor, hanging his head. “It’s stopped.”


IMG_9606Psychiatrist
By Alexis Copeland

I walk down the long hallway, following my psychiatrist to his office. When I get there, I sit down on the leather couch. He greets me and asks how I am doing. I give him my usual answer, “I’m okay.”

My psychiatrist’s name is Dr. S. He is an older guy with grey hair and bushy eyebrows. His voice is always hushed and you have to listen very closely to hear what he’s saying.

My mother sits in the chair beside me. I don’t like it when she comes into the room with me. I don’t like talking about my feelings in front of her. Plus, she talks too much and assumes she knows everything that’s going on with me. She doesn’t even know half of it.

The questioning begins. I stare out the window in Dr. S’s office and let my mother do all the talking. There is a big field out there, scattered with wildflowers. They look so free, which is the exact opposite of how I’m feeling.

Then Dr. S asks me how my medication is working.

I am in the experimental phase of taking anti-depressants. The first pill I took made me so tired that I could barely function. They started me on a new pill about a month ago. And to be honest, I don’t feel any different than before. I’m still depressed, still anxious, still suicidal.

Of course my mother gives her input. “Well I see a change in her mood,” she says. Of course she does. That’s what she said last time when I was sedated twenty-four seven.

Dr. S asks me how I feel. I want to tell him the truth, but I just stay quiet and shrug my shoulders.

My mother thinks I should stay on the medication. “It’s only been four weeks,” she says.

Most medications take six to eight weeks to work. Personally I think that’s a little ridiculous. A suicidal person could kill herself in that time.

Dr. S then asks me what I think.

I say, “Sure.”

So he tells me he will see me in another four weeks.

I say, “Okay.”

And then my mother and I leave his office and go back to the waiting room. My mother schedules another appointment with the receptionist. I stand beside her, staring into space.

Then we leave. We pass through the automatic sliding doors, and I think of how much I do not want to come here anymore.


IMG_8199Young Adult
By Charles Rammelkamp

“It’s an open casket,” Doreen said to her friend Sherry. “I don’t know if they’re old enough to handle it.”

One of Doreen’s daughter’s classmates at Potawatomi Rapids High had died in an automobile accident. Charmaine had been in a car with some other kids when a drunk slammed into them. Charmaine had been sitting shotgun.

“It was ironical,” Doreen’s daughter Tiffany had said. “Char usually sits in back with the rest of us. Sat.”

Tiffany had not been with them that night, for which Doreen had thanked God over and over.

“It might sober them up,” Sherry said, as if the accident had somehow been the kids’ fault.

“How could she have known?” Doreen replied, a mild rebuke. “How could Charmaine or any of them have seen what was coming?”

“I’m just saying,” Sherry said. “I just mean it might make them more alert. I know it would me.”

“Tiff wants to go,” Doreen conceded. “She says it’ll ‘bring closure,’ not that she has any idea what that means. It’s something that guidance counselor, Ken Faust, must have said. I could wring his neck. But I guess I’ll have to let her go, won’t I? All her friends are.”

*
The funeral parlor reminded Tiffany of a movie theater lobby. Dim lights in wall sconces, purple-cushioned chairs with gold brocade.

“And you know how in yoga class when they play that mood music that’s not really Indian? The music felt churchy in the funeral home, but I don’t think it was. Organ music. Solemn.”

“Did you look at the body?” Doreen asked, and it sounded cold to her and she revised: “Did you look at her? Did you look at Char?”

Tiffany nodded. “She looked … dead,” she said, but then, realizing she didn’t really know what “dead” was, she said, “She didn’t look alive,” and then she realized that that was what “dead” meant, and all at once Tiffany felt more grown up than she had ever felt in her life, as if she’d glimpsed a mystery, passed some invisible milestone. Now she had a history. Now she knew how time worked.


IMG_8144Sin
By Jamey T. Gallagher

Perry stood on the edge of the playground. He was in fourth grade, preparing for his First Communion, and he had just had a Sinful Thought. The thought came from outside of him; it wasn’t his. It had insinuated itself into his mind, a little egg casing that had hatched. He had thought the words: “Christ’s Crappy Dick,” which he saw as an acrostic for CCD, and he could not get the three words out of his head. He kept hearing them echo, especially the last two: crappy dick, crappy dick, crappy dick. He was going to hell.

Perry didn’t believe in the devil in a literal way, but he believed in hell and in evil, and the thought was clearly evil, the most evil thought he had ever had. Though sometimes he did things he knew were wrong, those were not thoughts so much as impulses, like the time he banged his brother’s head against the hardwood floor when they were fighting, as hard as he could, his brother’s skull making a reverberating, frightening, but deeply satisfying clong, Timothy getting up, holding his head and looking at him like he was crazy, or the time Jennifer M told him he could feel her hair because it was so soft and he had been unable to stop himself from yanking the lock as hard as he could.

Christ’s Crappy Dick. If he was capable of thinking this kind of thought, he was probably capable of worse. He looked around at the other children on the playground, children wearing mittens even though it was an unseasonably warm day in November, children throwing mud at each other, children hanging from the bars of the “eagle’s nest,” children pushing each other down the slide, children swinging back and forth and back and forth on the swings, making wide parabolas, some of them jumping off and flying through the air, their arms wind-milling, challenging gravity, and he wondered if any of them could tell what was happening inside him, if any of them had ever had such an evil thought.

Many of them, about twenty, went to CCD along with him, riding the same bus the two miles from Barry Elementary to Mary, Mother of Peace. Those twenty others were all devout believers, good Catholics, even though some were bullies and others smoked cigarettes in the woods and a few did things with a girl in the sixth grade who was already developed and wore a leather jacket and makeup and would do things Perry did not understand in the woods behind the school for ten dollars. Despite their failings, they were all better than him, were all going to heaven, whereas he was subject to evil winds. Perry stood near the water fountain, under the shade of a willow tree whose branches were covered in soft brown leaves, a place where fuzzy caterpillars collected, wondering if he would ever be a good person again in his life.


other side
By William O’Hara

In walks the man with the pointed face. The man of a thousand pointed faces. He springs into a boxing stance, two fists clenched in my direction. How are we today he says. How are we today is what he says every day. A creature of habit. Definitely some sort of creature. A big smile on his pointy face, he keeps looking at his fists then at me and then his fists again. Not a care in the world. Not this one anyway. I see two white coats standing in a corner talking to each other. Every now and then they look over. In the black corner stands a man dressed in black reading from a black book. Every now and then he looks over too. Pointy takes my jaw and moves it from side to side. I tell him to stop. I will stop when you stop he says softly. The others come over. That’s it, that’s it, they say encouragingly, three faces in a semi-circle looking down, being encouraging. I can see them grow tired of being encouraging and when they are tired they turn round and go. Except for Pointy of course. He has no place to go. Help me! I cry, Help me! Of course nobody does.

No one ever does.

Some time goes by. I don’t know how much time because there’s no clock in the room. Without some form of measurement it’s always hard to tell the time because time is relative. I learnt that a long time ago. Pointy likes to take his time. He likes to take my time too. He’s in no hurry. He has all the time in the world.

I can’t get away with anything. I know this because I am always trying to get away with something. Always trying. Always not getting away with it.

The light switches on. My eyes are unused to the light and they feel like they are burning. How they burn. I see nothing but blinding light. I wrench my eyes tightly shut. Fingers try to wrench them open. Water sprinkled on my face makes no difference. I drive my face inwards. A hand grabs my jaw and turns it upwards. I recognise the technique. I don’t like it. Not one bit. One day I am going to see how he likes it. I am told to open my eyes. I squint upwards. I didn’t agree to this. No one has ever agreed to this. It would lose its point if people agreed to this.

I hide further and further away until I have nowhere else to go but what is happening to me is following me like a hand. It has me and is dragging me out. Out into the light. I can’t stay but have nowhere else to go. I let go and it’s only then I remember that memory is something better forgotten.


59
By Michelle Greer

The table sat innocently in the dark room off to the left of check-in lines. No one could tell by looking at the table what it was fully capable of or the true nature of what the room was for.

Campbell eyed the scale warily; it had been a while since he had stepped on it. He really needed to attend this business meeting on Mars. He had barely eaten for weeks in hopes that he could take his clothing and his shoes with him. On his last trip he had been forced to part with his clothes at the last minute which was better than the alternative. He had spent the whole trip hand-washing his underwear every night and hanging his suit in the bathroom to steam clean it from the shower to get rid of the smell of the streets. If only the space shuttles would ease up on their weight restrictions. He longed for the days when money had been the only penalty for overweight luggage and a person’s weight wasn’t a factor.

He remembered in horror what his choices had been the last time he had travelled. It was not an experience he wanted to repeat. He had actually lain on the table before deciding to part with his clothing. No Armani suit was worth a leg …

The table was seven feet long and the surface of it lit up in the shape of a human. Depending on the size of the person who lay down on it the outline increased or shrunk. Along the human form were lines that denoted arteries and other valuable biological factors that had to be taken into consideration. Underneath that layer were fifty-nine scales beneath the various parts of the human outline.

The scales were maintained on a weekly basis to make sure they were accurate up to .01 of a percent of a gram. There was no room for weight calculation errors. Underneath the scales were strategically placed pressure points, each one with a saw and a cauterizing machine. The blades were maintained each night to ensure they were razor sharp and ready to be used at a moment’s notice. There was no allowance for error with the machine. Underneath the table there was a trough that ran around the length of the table. The trough caught all of the fluids and body parts that fell into it. The room was also equipped with an automatic washing system that vaguely resembled a pressure washer. It had two cycles: first the room was sprayed with water to remove any remaining fluids; then the whole room was blasted with a gamma ray to destroy any bacteria. The room was also maintained by a crew on a daily basis to make sure that there were no clogs in the drains or any other potential problems.

The lineup snaked along through three turnstiles. Some travelled for business and some for pleasure but everyone had to go through this ritual before their trip could begin. Each capsule on the shuttle fit one person and their carry-on luggage and had a weight restriction of seventy kilograms. Those even close to the seventy kilogram limit were severely limited in what they could carry. The check-in lineup was a nightmare for frequent flyers as they were never sure of just what they would be forced to give up to board the shuttle.

Campbell stepped on the scale with his carry-on luggage and heaved a sigh of relief when it flashed his weight at 69kg. The dieting had worked! He happily stepped forward to have his bag X-rayed.

Sue, the chubby woman behind Campbell, stepped onto the scale and alarms rang as the scale flashed 72 kg. Four security guards immediately pulled her out of the line and into the room off to the left of the checkout lines. She recoiled in terror when she saw the gleaming table.

Sue lay on the table as the fifty-nine perfectly calibrated scales did their work calculating what she would need to relinquish to board the shuttle. She made fists with her four fingered hands and tried to curl up her nonexistent toes. A frequent flyer who loved to eat, she had already parted with the aforementioned digits, one kidney, her appendix, and an ear.

“Spleen removal to commence in two minutes,” a disembodied voice spoke.

Fantastic, just the spleen, thought Sue. Her Prada bag and its contents were safe once again.


IMG_9431FRANKEINSTEIN
By Paul Gray

It is Switzerland. Outside, all is dark beneath the chilling thick blanket of a winter’s night. Only here, in the ramshackle laboratory of Dr. Frankenstein does light blaze, and that crazily.

The doctor peels off his surgical gloves and flings them aside with a moody laugh. It is finished! On the bench beside him reclines his creation, a hideous assemblage of body parts ripped from tombs by the light of the moon and stitched together into a shape more monster than man.

He steps back, wiping his brow. Of course, the thing couldn’t be done; they all said so.

What? Create life out of no-life? Animation out of inertia? Dynamism out of dust?! Never would he forget the mockery, the insolent laughter of those talentless little bench crawlers, those gawping, incurious, jealous reptiles. And all because he was determined to be the first!

He had walked out—had quit the seat of learning. In a fit of fury he had burned down the university, plundering the remains for the wherewithal with which to equip the creaking hovel he had rented with his remaining allowance. Here he had toiled like a lunatic. Ten years had passed in this creative frenzy; ten years in which the yokels had shunned him as a man possessed, a practitioner of the black arts …

Peasants! But he had shown them! He had shown them all.

The fruits of his toil lie on the laboratory slab, a froth of wiring bubbling to and from it, a forest of glass tubes rearing up all along its disfigured form. The great dynamo is charging up and presently its electrical payload would spit violently across. The impressive muscular bulk of the creature would twitch, heave. Aye, but would it live?

The toaster pops. Dr. Frankenstein sinks exhaustedly into a nearby wicker chair. He has done all he can. Now it is a question of waiting.

He picks up the morning paper, so sorely neglected. This is more like it. This is how he likes to relax, just himself, a cup that cheers, a slice of toast, and the crossword. Perfect. He frowns over a clue: “Heavy World Waiting For This Champ (7)”. “Frazier”, easy! He dashes down the answer, a sneer on his thin lips. How childishly simple these puzzles are! Why, a man such as himself for instance often completes ten or twelve of them in a day.

He takes a snickering bite of toast.

The timer blares.

Flinging aside the paper, he leaps to his feet. He strides across. He checks with a quick eye the status of the great dynamo. It is full. Excellent! Lab-coat aflap, he crosses to his creation. One hand trembles to the great lever, the wrenching of which will infuse the giant with the awesome energy of the cosmos. He pauses. He is remembering. “And what will you do with it even if you succeed?” “Will you keep it or will you abandon it once the novelty wears off? For we know you of old, Victor.” “What if it doesn’t like you? Very few do, you know that Victor, don’t you?” Etc. and etc. “Mind your own damn business,” he had snapped; “and piss off!” “My, with an attitude like that, you’d fit in perfectly well as a GP.”

What—him? Be content with peering up noses and lancing hemorrhoids? Bah! Money! Fame! That was his ticket.

The moment has arrived. He throws the great lever, heart in his mouth. At once the room dims, as indeed does most of the village. Huge gouts of raw electricity surge through the myriad wires and rip into the creature. It groans! It twitches! It rips away the restraining bands! It sits up!

Dr. Frankenstein moans in awe as, with great clumsy thrashings, the monster descends. Arms outstretched, it begins to lumber about the room. “Do you see?!” screams the mad inventor. “Do you behold my work? All you who mocked! All you who derided! All of you from that old, hateful Alma Mater—behold me now, you cheap, disbelieving bastards!”

The creature’s huge feet encounter the wicker chair, smashing it to smithers. Another blundering step and the coffee cup and saucer meet the same fate. The creature pauses. What in God’s name can he be looking at? wonders Frankenstein, by now on his knees. In massive fingers the creature catches up the newspaper. Mismatching watery eyes scan the print. It tuts. It shakes its great scarred head. From a bench it seizes a lead pencil and scrawls something on the newsprint beneath its bleary gaze. It lurches away. Frankenstein darts across, frantic. He snatches up the discarded paper. It is the crossword. ‘Frazier’ has been crossed out and ‘Foreman’ scratched in its place. Worse—it is the correct answer!

The doctor sniffs petulantly. Three stalking strides, perhaps four. He seizes the great lever and with a spiteful sneer wrenches it to ‘Off’. The creature staggers. It totters. It collapses, never to rise again.

In the sudden stillness Frankenstein folds up the paper and inserts it in his pocket. He glances at his watch. Good. Opening time. He shoots a contemptuous glance back at the fast-decomposing pile of protoplasm that was formerly his pride and joy.

“No one likes a smart-ass,” he says.

He exits.


IMG_9183SEE MONSTER?
By Perry McDaid

She snapped her serrated jaws shut with as much force as she could muster. The surroundings blurred in the force of her venting. Foliage bowed in the blast, inflamed by her power. Myriad and diverse creatures scuttled for cover in the multi-storey habitat the pristine coral provided amid its glorious jungle. The golden surface rippled, sparkling silica temporarily blurring the waters.

Slowly everything settled and an eye could see again through the chaos; but something was dreadfully wrong. Her coat glistened in the light of passing living lanterns. Her lips glowed in the neon of flashier neighbours. But still …

“Bloooo …” she began, but relented: those kinked lips pursing again in an expression of infinite puzzlement. Her comfort, her salve of so many years: her jewel … had been stolen as she slumbered.

In the distance, high above, a dark shadow rose towards a larger one, bubbles leading its bronze form to the surface of the Gulf of Manaar. She would have pursued it, but it was moving too fast, and she was pointed the wrong way. Plus … it had been so long since she had used that ponderous muscle thus. Kelp caressed her carapace.

She couldn’t sigh—not built for it: so she philosophised as a pebble hit her shell: dislodged from the reef by the departing palu-oruwa.

“I clink, therefore I’m clam,” she said in the way of the elder molluscs. “That’s runny á la carte,” she punned to cheer herself, absorbing the glutinous nutrients from her lodger algae. She laughed in an inverted shower of bubbles. The kelp danced in delight.

She reflected how nice it would be if her companions could appreciate the humour, but … she was a Clam Dragon with the gift of far-sight and the intelligence of all dragons. She had telepathically read the works of Descartes available in the library at Vidataltivu. She could see the thin sauce of the clam curries as they were prepared in the kitchen of Columbo’s Zaza. Her companions experienced only what their senses and mobility permitted. Sometimes she pitied them, but mostly—considering what she had seen in her lifetime—she envied them.

Descartes—unadapted—had said, “It is not enough to have a good mind; the main thing is to use it well.”

Her wisdom brewed longer, and lasted for eternity. Curiosity was a luxury for the young and fast-moving. The fallen pebble made its way down into the soft tissue of her insides. After the fashion of all miracles, nacre flowed. The void began to fill.

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